What Music Styles Work Best in Racially Diverse Churches?

A major concern today among church leaders wanting to stimulate diversity is the question of musical style. What styles work best in racially diverse churches?  Is it classic hymns of the faith, including negro spirituals?  Or is it contemporary praise music and recent gospel? What about incorporating different languages, especially Spanish, or maybe Zulu or Swahili?  And what about incorporating “ethnic rhythms” that represent “soul” or a “Latin beat”?

Many promoters of diversity insist on actively incorporating what sociologists call ethnic signaling.  Even if the music is poorly done, placing it in the service recognizes that people come from various ancestral backgrounds.  One church leader told me, “The gesture of musical style—even if it is bad—says to members ‘You matter.’”  It also signals to members that church leaders value diversity in the congregation.  George Yancey once wrote, “developing an inclusive style of worship is important because it signals a sensitivity and welcomeness to individuals of different races.”1  In other words, playing different types of music is a symbolic expression of care and commitment.

But not all church leaders welcome the attempt to diversify music in an attempt to satisfy stereotypic racial overtones.  And research shows that using different styles in the attempt to integrate one group of people can alienate groups from other ethnic and racial groups.  For example, Rebecca Y. Kim found that when an Asian American campus ministry had black students lead worship with their “African American gospel style,” white students simply left2.

Looking through field notes from dozens of observations in successfully diverse churches and analyzing over 170 interviews with their leaders and members, I found that all multiracial churches are intentional about worship, not all are intentional about racial diversity3.  In short, successfully multiracial churches vary widely not only in the musical styles used in services but also—and more importantly—in the degree of intentionality for diversity in the design of services.

I organize the philosophy of worship music selection in diverse churches around two primary considerations.  The first consideration is the degree of racial awareness.  How conscious are music leaders in considering race-ethnicity in planning their music selection for the worship gatherings?  The second consideration is the degree of musical variety.  How important is it to have different types, styles, or genres of music in the worship gatherings?  When we combine both considerations and distinguish between leaders who have “high racial awareness” versus “low racial awareness” as well as leaders who emphasize exhibiting “high musical variety” versus “low musical variety,” it yields a fourfold typology:

Philosophies of Music Guiding Music
Selection among Music Leaders

Low Racial Awareness High Racial Awareness
High Musical Variety Professionalists Pluralists
Low Musical Variety Traditionalists Assimilationists

In my study, about half of church leaders in successfully diverse churches bring absolutely no racial/ethnic awareness in choosing music.  Depending on their commitment to musical variety, some are “Traditionalists” who maintain a single, consistent style of music, while others are “Professionalists” who have a high value for bringing many styles of music into services without a concern for their effect on racial diversity.

Of those leaders who do bring racial-ethnic awareness in choosing music, about half of them are “Pluralists” who are consumed with cultivating musical variety on the basis of appealing to different racial and ethnic groups.  While the philosophy of pluralism is not the one most commonly held among worship leaders, it is the philosophy that is most popularly believed to exist among leaders of multiracial churches.  The “pluralist approach” is therefore the philosophical approach to music that is most aggressively promoted as a strategy in discussions of diversity to worship leaders of non-diverse churches.

In contrast to pluralists, “Assimilationists” tend to share a more generalized belief in the universal power of music in affecting individuals.  As part of their philosophy of musical selection, they commit to a specific style of music that is believed to be universal.  Assimilationists defend their choice of music style as the one that best accomplishes worship among all people regardless of their racial-ethnic group4.

The bottom line is that all musical arrangements can be found to “work” for worship in successfully diverse churches, so no specific form is absolutely necessary to accomplish diversity.  And what makes this point so difficult to make is that every church leader in a successfully diverse church has “evidence” that their orientation toward music selection works “best” because they see the “obvious” diversity that regularly happens in their own worship gatherings.

  1. George A. Yancey, 2003, One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches, Inter Varsity Press, p. 78.
  2. Rebecca Y. Kim, 2006, God’s New Whiz Kids: Korean American Evangelicals on Campus, New York University Press.
  3. Gerardo Marti, Forthcoming, Worship Across the Racial Divide: Notions of Race and the Practice of Religious Music in Multiracial Churches, Oxford University Press.
  4. See Gerardo Marti, 2009, A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, Indiana University Press, and Gerardo Marti, 2008, Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church, Rutgers University Press.
  • Twitter
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • email
Tagged as: , ,


  • Brian Howell

    Good article. I think the typologies are helpful, although I’m not sure every worship leader would know where they might fall there. (Social scientists probably get it, but not too many of us lead worship.) ;-)

    I do think there are other variables to consider in the way worship is understood/received in particular congregartions. Specifically, I think that how the leadership talks about worship and/or diverse expressions within worship (call & response during the sermon, forms of prayer, time orientation, etc.) can have a profound affect on how members frame a worship experience in terms of inclusion/exclusion and the meaning of various culturally particular forms.

    For an example, see my chapter in the book _This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity & Christian Faith_ (ed. by Priest and Nieves, Oxford, 2006).

    Good to see your book coming out! Looking forward to reading it.

    Brian Howell
    Assoc. Prof. of Anthropology
    Wheaton College

    • Kristina Arellano

      In 2007 I conducted fieldwork for my master’s thesis at a Latin American Pentecostal church in the Twin Cities. Thirteen different countries were represented. I intereviewed 11 leaders including 6 musicians from the worship team. My goal was to understand how the church’s collective identity and concept of Latinidad influenced the worship. Specifically, I wanted to know 1) How does the church decide what music to use when there are so many different ethnicities represented in one congregation?
      and 2) How and to what degree does the church’s concept of them selves as a
      Hispanic church influence how worship is conducted? They all had very different perspectives about what types of music genres were used in the service. From my perspective, most of it was very similar to the contemporary Christian used in American churches, but the songs were written by Latin American composers. Their actually comments were some-what conflicting. Pages 118-120 of my thesis include their actual comments. But I think you might also find chapter 5 (pages 47-96) very interesting because it includes mini-case studies of each of the musicians. Here’s a link to the thesis http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=ethno_master

  • Gerardo Marti


    Thank you for your kind note, and for letting us know about your book. Eager to read.

    And you are certainly right – there’s much more. Even as I’m writing the book, I see so much more to consider with resoect to liturgy and am forcing myself to remain focused on a few – hopefully insightful – observations, especially as relates to the uses of music.



  • ceebee

    complete speculation with no concrete research…hopefully the book will rely more on a wide diversity of sources and quantifiable research

  • Gerardo Marti

    Dear ceebee,

    Please understand there is no speculation involved here – over 170 interviews and observations of 15 different congregations from a range of congregations. Indeed — what I find is that much of the “advice” literature available today is full of speculation. My research is intended to counter that and provide information in productive ways for church leaders. I hope you and others find it useful, even if it runs counter to what may be assumed.



  • James Ward

    As a music director in a cross-cultural church, I had to smile at your last sentence about “evidence” that one’s own approach is the best. In this my 60th year of doing aggressively African American oriented worship with hours of transcribing gospel arrangements from explicitly black gospel resources, I am still constantly challenged by the contradictions of diverse worship– not enough strong singers, untrained bass players, and a demand for jazz chops on the piano. Maybe my doubts are the reason I have not yet written a book with the answers. It’s been mostly struggle for me, but there have been some exhilerating opportunities for a new “heart music” to emerge that includes everyone. Kinda like the Christian walk in general, I guess.

    • James Ward

      Oops, I’m 60 years old, but with 30 years experience in this field. I need an editor.

  • E McG

    I liked this article. I’m a music director (~15 yrs exp) and my next professional development project is deeper study into religious experience is (brain states, types of experiences, etc) and how service music and the elements of a church services facilitate those experiences. Current area of investigation is grappling with genres, but holy wow the net is filled with a lot of people who think certain music just can’t be holy. I like the grid in the text here, because it gets us above that level of attachment and helps to explain why people can be so stuck to their idea. Someplace I have quotes from early church letters that basically say “oy, kids today” about the music.

Add Your Comment